Washington, DC — The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service is wrongfully withholding documents detailing why top agency officials refused to act on findings of scientific integrity reviews confirming serious scientific misconduct by agency managers, according to a federal lawsuit filed today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). This stalemate signals that the vaunted new scientific integrity program inside FWS has broken down completely, apparently at the instigation of its Director Dan Ashe.
In spring of 2013, two separate panels found two managers of the FWS Oklahoma Ecological Services field office guilty of scientific misconduct in two separate cases. Months followed without any action by FWS leadership. Approximately one year ago on July 11, 2013, Deputy Interior Inspector General Mary Kendall issued an extraordinary public rebuke in the form of a Management Advisory stating:
“The Office of Inspector General (OIG) requests that immediate action be taken to address an unreasonable and inappropriate response regarding the discipline of two Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) supervisors who engaged in scientific misconduct and apparently retaliated against three FWS employees in 2012. The failure to take timely and appropriate management action by FWS senior leadership, including Director Dan Ashe, damages the credibility and integrity of the Department of Interior (DOI) and the FWS Science Program as well as senior leadership.”
Besides Ashe, the OIG named Regional Director Benjamin Tuggle and Deputy Director Rowan Gould. Days later, FWS issued a statement that it “is pursuing all appropriate disciplinary actions to address the matters raised in the Inspector General's Management Advisory.” Subsequent events, however, suggest that statement was untrue. A year later, there is no sign of the “appropriate” actions promised by FWS:
- The two guilty managers were not demoted or suspended. Instead, they were kicked upstairs through prestigious details until they ultimately found other jobs. One, Luke Bell, left to work for an oil company. Dixie Porter, the senior manager, eventually secured a high-level position with the U.S. Forest Service, although it is unclear if her new employers was apprised of the scientific integrity review findings about her deliberate misconduct;
- The three whistleblowing scientists who suffered a series of unpaid suspensions and other punishments have yet to get FWS to agree to redress the career damage they suffered; and
- FWS took no steps to withdraw a fraudulent paper cooked up by Porter and Bell to create a phony paper trail supporting their actions. The journal moved to withdraw the paper only after being contacted by a journalist.
“The Service leadership is itself guilty of scientific misconduct in how it handled these findings,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch. “Dissembling about its actions to ensure integrity speaks volumes.”
The scientific integrity report about the two cases came to light only after PEER pursued an appeal of their denial under the Freedom of Information Act. Today these redacted reports can be seen only on the PEER website. The agency, however, continues to balk at turning over report exhibits and the communications from FWS leadership following those reports. After it became clear that further appeals would not secure production, PEER filed suit in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia to force their release.
“How can official efforts to guarantee scientific integrity have any credibility if they are exercised only in secret?” Ruch asked, noting that the FWS never even made the reports available to the scientists who brought the complaints. “Progress in protecting science from political interference requires that the courageous scientists who exposed this corruption are fully vindicated.”